Any study abroad site or blog you visit will give you one major tip: do the touristy stuff first. Otherwise, you’ll tell yourself that you have plenty of time to do it, but you’ll never get around to it. So, taking their advice, my friend Miriam and I put on our best walking shoes and became the ultimate London tourists this weekend!
Obviously, there’s a lot more to do in London than can be covered in a few hours, but we tackled what we thought would be the most typical and crowded attractions, most of which happened to be outside, while we had a sunny day to work with. It’s surprising to me that, despite how huge London is, most of the super-touristy things are close enough together that one can walk between them, sometimes in just a day. They key is to be strategic about your route. Here was ours:
- Tower Bridge
- Lunch at the Horseshoe Inn
- London Bridge
- Tate Modern
- London Eye
- Big Ben/Palace of Westminster
- Westminster Abbey
- St. James’s Park
- Buckingham Palace
- Wellington Arch
- Hyde Park
- Science Museum
- Victoria & Albert Museum
The longest walk between any of these was between the Tate Modern and the London Eye, and it was only 20 minutes. In addition, you’re getting to walk along the river, which is just a lot of fun.
One of my favourite things about London is that almost all the museums are free. Some will suggest that you donate (I’m looking at you, Science Museum), but no one is going to glare at you if you drop a one pound coin into the box instead of the “suggested” £5.
Because of that, this entire day cost nothing but food and transportation. I’ve listed the Horseshoe Inn here as a lunch stop because of its convenient location (and because it has the best fish and chips I’ve had so far), but you will spend up to £12 on lunch depending on what you get, so feel free to stop somewhere else if you’d like. Obviously. This is, after all, your trip we’re talking about…
Now, we did all of this is one day — from 10 AM to 5 PM to be exact. It wasn’t easy, and we were really, really tired by the end. We didn’t spend much time in any of the museums, only stopping at a couple of exhibits in each. We also missed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace because it takes place in the late morning. I recommend splitting this itinerary into two days if you choose to do it yourself and have more time available to you.
If I had two days with which to do all of the touristy things in London my heart desired, this would be my itinerary:
9 AM to Late Night
- Breakfast in Covent Garden or at Dean Street Townhouse — Covent Garden is a cute little area that my mom is obsessed with, and there are inordinate amounts of tiny cafés and brunch spots you can explore. But if you’re in the mood to branch out, Dean Street Townhouse is affordable, delicious, and highly rated. And it’s really not far from Covent Garden if you wanted to start with coffee there and then hop over to DST.
- The National Gallery — I have not personally been to the National Gallery, but for fans of “paintings in the Western European tradition from the 13th to the 19th centuries” (pulled directly from the website), this is supposedly really legit. Also, it’s free. If you’re not into art, swap it for the London Transport Museum. It’s not cheap (£16 per adult), but London does have some pretty iconic transportation, and the history behind them is actually kind of cool.
- Trafalgar Square — This is supposed to be cool and famous, but I can never spend more than five seconds here without getting bored unless there are cool performers.
- Westminster Abbey — You could pay £20 for a tour, or you could admire it from a couple of angles and then move on. I personally fall into the latter camp on most things, including this, but this could be the thing you want to hang your hat on, and that’s fine. No judgment here.
- Big Ben/Palace of Westminster — This is a photo opp. Do NOT get pulled into the tours. They are supposedly insufferably boring. You can get a pretty good close-up of Ben from the north side, but the real view is across the bridge.PRO TIP: If you absolutely must gamble money on the “which cup has the ball” guys, please pay attention. They always, always switch it as you’re handing them your money. I stood next to one and watched it happen to the same guy six times in a row. Don’t be that guy.
- London Eye — The tickets are expensive and the lines are long, but the view is nice. Is it worth the money? Maybe, maybe not. But will you enjoy the ride? Probably. Just be aware that it is a thirty minute ride. It will not be over quickly, and it will greatly postpone your lunch. You must book your tickets in advance if you want to avoid even more lines, so start thinking now about whether or not it would be worth it to you. Either way, seeing it up close is quite fun.
- Lunch along the South Bank — Find a celebrity who is from London and hasn’t said something about loving the South Bank. I dare you. It probably won’t happen, because everyone loves it. Find a spot to relax between walking spells, maybe one where you can see the Thames (pronounced Tims).
- Tate Modern — The Tate Modern is supposed to be the best museum in England, and that’s saying something. Again, most of the museums in London are free, so maybe donate a pound or two and enjoy the best modern art has to offer.
- Shakespeare’s Globe — This is a place where I would stop and have a tour if I had the money. They’re rated as being okay, but if you are into theatre then the chance to get up close and personal with such a prominent historical figure and influence is invaluable.
- London Bridge — The only thing to do at London Bridge is take a picture of the name and post something witty on Instagram along the lines of “I’m pleased to report that London Bridge is not actually falling down. Carry on.” Don’t get sucked into the touristy shops that will have you believe they add something to the experience. Just read a plaque and move on.
- Dinner at the Horseshoe Inn — Get the fish and chips. You won’t regret it.
- Tower Bridge — The tower bridge is just plain cool. It’s classic London, and it should definitely be seen. However, I would skip the tour. I’ve never done it, but I hear it’s not worth the inordinate price you pay. That’s why I’ve placed it on the evening end, so that you can get the perfect picture in gorgeous light from the South Bank. If you’re late enough for it to be dark out, the bridge is lit up beautifully.
- Show at the National Theatre — Everything the NT does is absolutely brilliant, so it doesn’t even matter what’s on, but it does help if it stars someone like Benedict Cumberbatch or Ben Whishaw. Tickets are not cheap, but this is the one thing I would splurge on over all else.
10:30 AM to 5 PM
- St. James’s Park — I love this park dearly for its views, but boy does it get crowded. It’s right next to Buckingham Palace, so it’s a natural draining point for the Changing of the Guard crowds, so I would go before that happens. Go out on the bridge and turn both ways. One end will give you a lovely view of Buckingham Palace, while the other will show you the Eye.
- Buckingham Palace/Changing of the Guard — Buckingham Palace is kind of whatever, so the tours are really unnecessary. It’s not even very historical. Instead, mush together with the crowds to see the Changing of the Guard. This is really quite cool.
- Picnic lunch at Green Park — There are a lot of places where you could have a picnic in London, but Green Park is probably the best suited to this itinerary. St. James’s Park is nice, but it’s wicked crowded after the Changing, and there are pigeons EVERYWHERE. Hyde Park is nice, but it’s so big, and the nice areas are inevitably crowded. The aptly named Green Park is right along your route from the Palace to the Arch, and there is plenty of space to lay out a blanket and bask. Make sure to have packed your picnic in the morning, as there are no grocery stores on your route. If it’s not quite so nice out, you can find a bench fairly easily, or you can choose to find a place to eat up near Wellington Arch/Hyde Park corner instead.
- Wellington Arch — The Arch is quite a nice place for a picture, and it’s got lovely historical context as well. Take a moment to read the things around you. And for my wannabe fashion bloggers who hit up Insta with the hyper-stylized #ootd pic with the super-cool backgrounds (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE), the green wrought iron gates on the arch are perf.
- Bike through Hyde Park — At this point, you’ve probably seen a number of people on board bicycles that say Santander on the front. They’re quite popular, not just among tourists but locals as well. To do this, you’ll needthe app onto your smartphone (it’s important that this is a device you will carry with you and access easily while cycling). After that, it’s £2 for the day. This includes unlimited 30-minute rides with at least 5 minutes between rides, or you can just keep the same bike for longer, paying an additional £2 per 30- minute period. Hyde Park has cycle hire stations throughout, so it shouldn’t be hard to stick to the free option.
- Tea at the Kensington Palace Orangery — I’ve never been here, but I’ve heard lovely things. And when else can you justify spending good money on herb-soaked water but when in London?
- Phone Booth picture — I recommend that, if you’re going to insist on a phone booth picture, you doit in this part of town. They are disgusting everywhere, though maybe slightly less so in this area, so it’s really your best bet. Here are my fool-proof steps for getting a quality phone booth photo:
- Make sure the person taking your picture is ready. We’re talking camera/phone up, knows how to use it, and has taken a test shot. They should know to take as many pictures as possible all at once while you’re in there.
- Hold your breath and open the door (in that order).
- Try to touch as little as possible to the phone booth or its contents (this includes your clothing).
- Pose for as long as you can hold your breath, changing up your position if needed so that the person taking pictures can get several different shots.
- Exit the phone booth and shut the door while STILL HOLDING YOUR BREATH.
- Walk away quickly and exhale, waiting to breathe in until a safe distance from the phone booth. That stink will follow you.
- Burn your clothes, because they probably will always and forever smell like pee.
- Victoria & Albert Museum — As mentioned previously, this museum was surprisingly fun for me, so I highly recommend it. One huge section of the museum is broken up by medium, which obviously includes painting, photography, etc., but also includes more specific materials like silver, antique silver, tapestry, pottery, jewelry, and more. My favourite section is the theatre and performance section because you get to try on clothes from various productions. This is another free museum, so go crazy! They also have a lovely courtyard area with wine and snacks.
- As you can see if you look at all of these places on a map, and as I mentioned earlier, they’re all walkable. Other than the Santander Cycles, I think you should walk the whole thing. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, it will be nice to see more by walking.
- Let’s talk about double-decker buses. They’re really not that exciting. Unless you come on a particularly nice day, the open-top tour buses are miserable, and they’re inordinately expensive. If you happen to take a bus somewhere and get one of the enclosed doubles, you’ll likely not get a great view, and you’re also likely to miss your stop, because the drivers don’t wait around for folks to mosey down the stairs. Plus, isn’t the real prize to get a picture of one? Picture from them are not much better than pictures from the ground. They’re not hard to spot if you just want to snap a quick pic, or even stand in front of one.
- The tube (the nickname for the London Underground) and the train are really, really useful for getting around London, but a word of caution: avoid peak hours like the plague. For example, if you try to get on the Jubilee line eastbound between 8 and 9:30, you will inevitably end up wedged between two boys in suits headed to Canary Wharf to save the economy or whatnot, one of whom will press into you, and one of whom will have terrible breath. It may sound like a dream come true, but I assure you that it’s not. I would know since I do it every single morning.However, if you do choose to take the train and tube, get yourself an Oyster card or a travel card. Travel cards should be used only for trips of a week or longer, and only if you think you’ll use the system multiple times per day (it was designed for commuters). Otherwise, get yourself an Oyster card and load up as much as you think you’ll need. The caps within zone 1 (where you’ll likely stay for touristy things) fluctuate but are definitely less than £10, so I’d add about that much per day you’ll be there, and I’d load it up at the beginning so you don’t have to deal with top-ups. You can then use it on both the tube and the bus. Either Oyster or travel cards can be purchased at large tube stations like that at Heathrow, or at some small shops. Just check tfl.gov.uk for more info.
There you have it! My guide to two days in London as the ultimate tourist, and my first time pretending to be a travel blogger. Perhaps I’ll have to test out this route for you sometime… In the meantime, enjoy some more pictures of Miriam and me goofing off at London’s most popular attractions!